The two biggest game series in the football world are undoubtedly Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer and Electronic Arts’ FIFA. While there are many tradeoffs, pros and cons when comparing and contrasting the two, perhaps most notable particularly in recent years has been the built-in loot box / microtransaction mechanic of FIFA’s Ultimate Team game mode, which is absent in the PES series. Ultimate Team exists as an extra game mode beyond “regular” games between set teams.

Ostensibly a mix of team-building and management coupled with actual matches versus the AI or other players, the mechanisms by which players recruit and field players has developed into one of the biggest cash cows of the contemporary video gaming scene. Indeed, FIFA Ultimate Team looks to be earning EA upwards of the spectacular $1.5 billion in 2020, driven by the ongoing health pandemic keeping players at home gaming at elevated levels compared to previous years. 

How exactly have EA achieved this feat – what are the mechanisms providing this staggering income? Ultimate Team players, stadia, abilities, etc. are sold in packs containing random items. These packs are essentially identical in function to loot boxes sold via microtransaction or in-game currency that are common throughout many games today. However, the particular loot box mechanic of FIFA Ultimate Team has recently drawn ire of regulatory bodies around the world for its overt similarities with online casino games and slot games.

The reason for this avalanche of critique is the pay-to-win nature of Ultimate Teams – drawing an excellent player randomly from a pack massively increases the quality of your team making it likelier for you to win and earn greater rewards. This leads to the player base engaging in arguably unhealthy behaviour whereby multiple packs are purchased in increasingly desperate attempts to retrieve particular players to increase the value or abilities of their teams. Furthermore, given the young age of much of the games’ player base, the cynical nature of this marketing technique is placed under even greater scrutiny, which has resulted in fairly remarkable rulings recently.

For example, the entire mechanic was outright banned in Belgium last year, where the government deemed it too predatory to include and market to its citizens. This has naturally been received with a mixed bag of reactions in the country, with some players applauding the move and expressing a hope that it pushes developers and publishers alike away from microtransactions, while others have complained that without the ability to purchase packs for the game mode they are strongly disadvantaged in online competitions. Of course, this latter point only serves to prove the point of the predatory nature of the mode’s design.

Similar developments in the Netherlands has seen EA fined for not properly following gambling watchdog regulations while the House of Lords in the UK has recently seen a report indicating that loot boxes in video games, such as Ultimate Team’s packs, should be considered equivalent to gambling. The UK is in fact likely to move forwards based on this recommendation in the immediate future during their current review of the topic, so restrictions and/or fines are not at all unlikely there also!

Electronic Arts’ behaviour with regards to FIFA Ultimate Team and their pushing of loot boxes in games such as FIFA 21 and others are indicative of current trends in the market. Indeed, EA themselves have been strongly criticised in recent years for their heavy-handed pushing of loot boxes and microtransactions. Perhaps most notoriously this occurred during the release of Star Wars Battlefront 2 in 2017 where consumer outcry was such that they were forced to backtrack on the game’s design and remove the mechanics, unfortunately too late for the game to succeed as well as it otherwise could have.

Games taking inspiration from adjacent genres and platforms is not necessarily a bad thing, but in terms of microtransactions, the reception among players has been extremely negative. Yet large developers and powerful publishers continue to push for their inclusion given the massive profits achievable through players opening their wallets in search for randomly allocated high quality content. In the coming years, we will no doubt see further legal battles between such publishers as EA and national regulatory bodies and governments as the balance between player interests and corporate profits continues.